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The Glycemic Index and Recovery

Thomas W. Nesser, PhD, CSCS

he weight loss industry has When carbohydrates are consumed they

classified carbohydrates as are broken down to glucose and released
good carbs and bad carbs. into the blood stream. Carbohydrate
However, when it comes to athletic per- sources include grains, fruits, vegetables,
formance, there are no bad carbs. All and sugar. Glycemic index (GI) is a
carbohydrates are equally important; the measure of the rate at which specific
trick is understanding when one carbo- carbohydrates are broken down to gluhydrate is better than another in relation cose and released into the blood stream.
to training.
The ranking used is relative to pure
glucose which has a ranking of 100.
Even though carbohydrates are the Carbohydrates with a high GI (e.g. corn
bodys primary energy source, they are flakes = GI value of 80) are rapidly bronot the bodys only source of energy. ken down and released into the blood
The body can also use fats and proteins while those with a low GI (e.g. kidney
for energy, though neither are as effi- beans = GI value of 29) are slower to
cient as carbohydrates. Fats are a rich break down and released into the blood.
energy source, however it takes the See table 1 for a list of carbohydrates
body more time to breakdown fats to and their glycemic score.
be used as an energy. In addition, the
conversion of fat into energy requires a As blood sugar (glucose) levels increase,
great amount of oxygen. Therefore fats the pancreas releases insulin to move
are predominantly used during aerobic the glucose from the blood into the tis(endurance) exercise. While proteins sue where it is used as energy or stored
can be used as an energy source, they are as glycogen. It is important to note
not the preferred source because it takes insulin also inhibits fat metabolism and
a lot of time for the body to break them protein breakdown. Foods with a high
down into a useable form. Besides, the glycemic index are often accompanied
protein used as an energy source comes by a spike of insulin. The excessive
from muscle breakdown. As an athlete, insulin pulls too much glucose from the
the breakdown of muscle mass is not blood causing fatigue, hunger, and usudesired.
ally additional sugar cravings. This cycle
continues throughout the day impeding
the use of fats as a fuel and ultimately

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leading to weight gain. This does not

mean all high GI carbohydrates are bad
and should be avoided.
High glycemic index foods are very beneficial when consumed prior to, during,
and following exercise. During exercise,
glycogen is broken down into glucose
and released into the blood where it is
carried to the working muscles to be
used as energy. When an athlete eats a
high GI food prior to or during exercise,
the absorbed glucose is used as an immediate energy source to fuel the working
muscles. Another benefit of consuming
carbohydrates during exercise is to spare
the use of stored carbohydrate (glycogen), allowing an individual to exercise
longer without the risk of depleting
glycogen stores.
Following exercise, high glycemic carbohydrates are recommended for quickly
replenishing glycogen stores. Upon cessation of exercise there is a 45 minute
window in which the bodys capacity to
replenish glycogen stores is greatest (2).
After this optimal window, replenishing
glycogen stores will take longer and may
not be entirely complete by the next
exercise bout which could hinder performance. Not having glycogen stores at
full capacity could hinder performance

Vol. 6 No. 6 Page 17


The Glycemic Advantage

during subsequent training or competi- Table 1. Glycemic index of Common Foods



Strength and power athletes can also

benefit from high glycemic carbohydrates. As previously mentioned insulin
moves glucose from the blood to the
tissue, inhibits the breakdown of fats
to be used as a fuel source, and most
importantly, blocks the degradation of
proteins (muscle). This is beneficial to
the resistance trained athlete by limiting
muscle damage during exercise leading
to improved recovery following training (1).

Kidney beans
Whole wheat pasta
Sweet potatoes
Brown rice
White bread
White rice
Corn flakes

GI Rank

Even greater benefit is observed in both

the endurance and the strength athlete
when protein is added to the carbohydrate in a 3:1 - 4:1 carbohydrate/protein
ratio (20 24 g carbohydrate to 5 6
g protein). It appears the consumption
of protein with carbohydrate further
Note: Differences exist in GI ranking due to the exact type of food tested.3
reduces muscle damage during training leading to faster recovery following
When consuming a carbohydrate sup- Continual carbohydrate and protein
training, and further enhances glycogen
plement prior to and during exercise, it consumption is vital beyond the initial
replacement following exercise (1,4).
is important that the carbohydrate is 45-minute post exercise period so the
both high glycemic and a liquid, such as body has the proper nutrients to conFor maximum benefit, it is advised
a sports drink. However, sports drinks tinue to repair and recover from training.
to begin consuming carbohydrate 10
made with the sugar fructose should be High glycemic carbohydrates can still be
minutes prior to the start of exercise
avoided since fructose is slower to move consumed up to four hours following
and throughout the exercise session.
from the stomach. Most sports drinks exercise, though it should be combined
Endurance athletes should consume a
will provide the carbohydrates necessary with a quality lean protein source. At
carbohydrate/protein supplement in a
for the desired insulin response, though this point a meal may be more ben4:1 ratio within the 45 minute window
only a few drinks are commercially eficial at meeting the nutritional needs
following exercise. Resistance trained
available that provide both the carbohy- rather than supplement bars and drinks.
athletes should consume 40 g of cardrate and protein necessary for glycogen For the remainder of the day any carbohydrates with 15 g of protein within
replacement and muscle recovery. Of bohydrates consumed should be low
the same 45 minute window (2). Of
course you can get carbohydrates and glycemic to maintain a constant and
the protein supplements available, whey
proteins from solid foods, but solids controlled rate of insulin release. An
protein is recommended since it empmay not be practical and they take a lot insulin spike is no longer desirable and
ties from the stomach faster than other
of time to pass from the stomach, which should be avoided.
protein supplements.
could lead to gastrointestinal distress
during exercise.

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Vol. 6 No. 6 Page 18


The Glycemic Advantage

Keep in mind the glycemic index is not About the Author

a rating of nutritional value. Some foods Dr. Thomas W. Nesser is an assistant
can be high glycemic and low in calories, professor in the Department of Physical
(e.g. beets) while some foods are low gly- Education at Indiana State University
cemic but high in calories (e.g. peanut where he develops and teaches advanced
M&Ms). Choose wisely.
courses in strength and conditioning.
He has been a member of the National
Strength and Conditioning Association
1. Baty JJ, Hwang H, Ding Z, Bernard (NSCA) for the past 17 years and has
JR, Wang B, Kwon B, Ivy JL.(2007). been a certified strength and conditioning
The effect of a carbohydrate and pro- specialist (CSCS) for 14 years. Dr. Nesser
tein supplement on resistance exercise is the NSCA state director for Indiana and
performance, hormonal response, and serves on the NSCA Education Committee.
muscle damage. Journal of Strength and Dr. Nesser is also a certified health fitness
Conditioning Research, 21(2):321 329. instructor through the American College
of Sports Medicine (ACSM). He holds a
2. Ivy J, Portman R. (2004). Nutrient
masters degree in exercise science from the
Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition.
University of Nebraska at Omaha and a
Basic Health. North Bergen, NJ.
PhD in Kinesiology from the University of
3. McArdle WD, Katch FI, Katch VL. Minnesota. Dr. Nessers research interests
(1999). Sports & Exercise Nutrition. include the effects of training and the facLippincott, Williams & Wilkins. tors related to athletic performance.
Baltimore, MD.
4. Saunders MJ, Luden ND, Herrick
JE. (2007). Consumption of an oral carbohydrate-protein gel improves cycling
endurance and prevents postexercise
muscle damage. Journal of Strength and
Conditioning Research, 21(3):678 684.

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Vol. 6 No. 6 Page 19